Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Research Conundrum in India

In the movie 3 Idiots, the hero tells his compatriot in one of the many gripping moments- “Do not run after success but follow excellence. Success will then run after you.” In this era where aspirants far outnumber opportunities the line between success and excellence has faded. The definition of success has been diluted and excellence has been restricted to advanced countries in popular perception. If you look at Indian history you will notice that we had necessarily gone in search of excellence and success of the Indian civilisation was it’s by product. Our kings were knowledge lovers who aimed at making the best universities, temples, sculptures unparalleled anywhere else in the world. As early as B.C 4th century Chandragupta Maurya built temples of learning at Takshashila and Nalanda, in the present day state of Bihar. Students from China and the Middle East came there to learn about the Indian civilisation thus making them global universities. We had known the art of casting Iron and preventing it from getting rusted long before the industrial revolution took place in Europe. There were sculptors who put in their entire lives to get perfection out of a stone. Today we stand in amusement looking at the carvings, be it at Beluru  and Halebidu in Karnataka or at the Sun temple in Konark, Orissa. But India of the 21st century with a population of 1.3 billion has settled in for mediocrity. Success or in layman’s terms securing the next meal becomes more important than building world class universities or thinking beyond the usual referred to as excellence.  

The transformation of India

 Thomas Macaulay changed the education system in India to suit the British East India Company in 1835. All that the British wanted from the Indian education system was to churn out efficient clerks. The natural instinct to explore and learn more was most often killed due to shattering poverty. Only the rich and extremely brilliant could cross the shores to Europe or America to learn more. But the majority were deprived of the quality education which ignited their minds. Many became government servants and never got promoted above the grades of clerks. After Independence, the state of affairs continued. Though we took baby steps in correcting the wrong, it was never sufficient because as a country we were left very far behind in terms of research and development. We had gotten upon ourselves far greater problems, such as widespread poverty, malnutrition and threat from hostile neighbouring countries. We turned to the west for inspiration and advice in terms of technology and never really gave importance needed to strengthening our indigenous research and development capabilities.

Shankar Aiyyar, a noted journalist in his recent book “Accidental India”, notes that India is the only country which trusts the private sector of foreign countries but distrusts its own in terms of defense procurements. It is largely true of all other major sectors as well. This explains why the Information Technology industry in India which boasts of 100 billion dollars of software exports every year, has so less number of research patents to its name when compared to the western software industry. That is why people working in the software sector are touted as “computer coolies” because all that they do is obey what their western bosses tell them. Even as a society we are awed by everything foreign. Made in America still makes us pay the top dollar for the goods, though made in China is in vogue these days. Made in India brand isn’t entirely trusted by its very own countrymen. It has got little to do with patriotism but the standard of goods that is made in India. This deep rooted malaise is to be uprooted only by strengthening our capabilities in research and development. The oft made argument that if Indians are going to the west and doing world class research, they can do it at home too is true provided there is a congenial atmosphere that we build for it. 

What makes research difficult in India?

Research in India is confined to the inner walls of a handful of institutions and universities accessible to only a few. They publish their research findings in foreign magazines which do not get circulated elsewhere other than a few university libraries. Many do not even have an idea of them. The systematic scheme of keeping research away from all student universities has done more harm than good. Keeping research opportunities out of the realm of a wider audience has served no purpose whatsoever. Not many renowned international research journals are published from India while there are hundreds from the west. That is because every institution of higher learning is a platform for pursuing research there. India has always been a bureaucratic country. Everything has to go through red tape. This has crushed a lot of aspirations of young men and women across the country. The IITs and IIMs were visualised by Prime Minister Nehru as the seats for research in engineering and management sciences when he got them established by an act of parliament in 1958. But today, not even a single of the 13 operational IIMs and 16 IITs figure in the list of top 100 research institutions in the world. When these institutions eventually became just launch pads for greener pastures in the United States and India got satisfied by foreign remittances, that is when we cut the branch of the tree that we were sitting. To say the least, it proved detrimental to the nation in the long run.

What needs to be done?

If you observe the geographical location of Israel you would notice that it is surrounded by hostile neighbours all around. But Israel has guarded its borders so efficiently because of its extremely hardworking citizens and its importance for indigenous research. Nearly 1/6th of the country’s budget goes into research. From a barren waste land that it had received from the United Nations in 1948, Israel today is the top exporter of agricultural/horticultural produce in the world. Its defence mechanisms are all state of art and any enemy would think twice before attacking its territory. The western countries are advanced because they are advanced in their research and developments. In the United States, there are more than 1500 policy think tanks, while there are close to 800 in China, but in India we have a meagre 300 odd. The statistics are many and are damning.

The government should recognise the urgent need of promoting research capabilities in the country and provide social security to bright students who are interested in pursuing it. It should be ably supported by the system of schooling and complacency should be thwarted. This is where teachers play a very important role. All fields of higher learning should be made competitive and should attract young men and women who do not want to settle for the normal. History, Politics, Public Administration, Management, Science, Film making, Fashion designing all fields have an equal stake in the country’s progress and can contribute significantly to the country’s economy. By extending this argument we understand why many of our films and music is a crappy imitation or remake of the popular western films and albums, why jeans is a fashion statement in India though originally the fabric was designed for coal mine workers in the United States. We need a complete over haul of the existing Macaulayian system. 

India is a land of infinite opportunities. That is why it remains buoyant and relevant even after a thousand years of oppression. What we need to concentrate is on the economic and social security of Indians. As Bill Vaughan, an American columnist and author says- “Money won’t buy happiness. But it can pay the salaries of a large research team who can analyse the problem for its solution”.

Note: The article was originally written for Pinnacle Academy yearly magazine 'Envision' published in April 2013.

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